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Morocco’s tree of life

Georgina Wilson-Powell discovers the wonders of Essaouira's secret elixir and its unique Jewish past

Argan trees and its precious oil is tempting more than just the goats these days
Argan trees and its precious oil is tempting more than just the goats these days

It’s said that the secret to the beauty of Morocco’s Berber women is the youth-giving elixir, argan oil. It’s a legend I’m more than happy to try while in Essaouira, Morocco’s windswept and charming coastal town, that’s an easier and gentler escape than the hustle and bustle of Marrakech.

The argan tree, beloved by local goats, grows abundantly on the rocky south west Barbary Coast, once the realm of pirates and the Portuguese. Even in their heyday, argan oil was considered a precious commodity: its use has been traced as far back as 3,500BCE — and if something sticks around that long you know it’s got to be good.

To get to the precious oil is a labour of love, one that is often taken up by women. As I walked the pretty streets of Essaouira’s medina, I spied a circular stone contraption, half mortar and pestle, half grain grinder that’s an integral part of creating argan oil.

The kernels of the argan fruit, which are left by the greedy goats, are gathered in the autumn every year and then cracked by hand. They’re then ground in the stone circle which releases the oil. It’s hard, arduous work that’s still done by hand.

To learn more, the Heure Bleue Palais runs a special argan oil discovery package. In fact, a stay at the hotel, tucked just behind one of the medina’s old gates puts me in mind of those argan nuts. The tall blue studded wooden doors crack open slowly after I ring the bell and I slide into the cool and tempting darkness beyond.

Once inside, the palm tree-filled courtyard unfurls, slick and beautiful and after a few days here, I’d wager a lengthy affair with this place would do me as much good as slathering myself in the oil. This is old-school Moroccan glamour — think chequerboard floors and proper brass keys for the rooms, which all overlook the courtyard.

To one side a bar is filled with mounted animal heads, and potent cocktails are poured quietly amongst the leather wing back chairs. To the other, the hotel’s restaurant turns out mouth-watering vegetarian and fish tagines to the sound of a live oud player (a Moroccan guitar).

On my second morning, it’s off to the local co-operative, around 20 minutes out of town, to meet the women who make the oil.

The scrubby argan trees dot the landscape, as they do from here to Agadir in the north. Unesco has taken the tree under its wing and protects it in a stretch of over 2.5 million hectares from the Atlas mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, known as the Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve.

The co-op employs local disadvantaged women and ploughs the profits from its face and body oils, soaps and cooking oils back into helping the community. Kittens hide in rattan baskets (cats are everywhere in Essaouira, and tolerated after the plague lingered on here for centuries longer than Europe) and play with stray kernels as I’m advised on what to use argan oil for (in short, everything).

I buy several bottles, lured in by the promise of better skin and fewer wrinkles; it’s also brilliant for hair, thanks to its high concentration of fatty acids and Vitamin E (thanks to the Phoenicians for discovering it).

Returning to cosy confines of the hotel, it is time to put the claims into action in a hammam treatment. First into a Turkish sauna, which looked from the outside like a wardrobe — instead of finding Narnia I uncover a steam-filled circular room, big enough for four, like a huge bread oven.

Suitably glistening and baked, my skin is rubbed smartly with black soap, dead skin sloshed off by buckets of warm water as I lie on a slab trying not to be Britishly self-conscious in the nude.

The argan oil is massaged in at the end of the treatment, leaving my newly scrubbed self soft and velvety. I don’t know if it is the massage, the heat or the oil but my afternoon nap is glorious.

Feeling revitalised, the next day I head out to explore the medina with a local guide. Essaouira’s cobbled streets work to more of a semblance of a grid than Marrakech, partly because the city was built by the Portuguese but partly because of its different quarters. The Jewish Quarter inhabits one of the oldest parts, with a strong Jewish merchant community here from the 18th century.

Reaching its peak at the turn of the 20th century, Jews were in the majority and the city was feted as a shining example of religious tolerance.

Today few people — and fewer Jews — live inside the protected Medina with its crumbling walls but visitors can still see the private Simon Attias synagogue dating back to the 19th century, currently being restored, one of the original dozens which still remains .

There’s also Rabbi Chaim Pinto’s home and synagogue, not far from Bab Doukkala. A little way down the street, the Slat Lkahal, is also undergoing renovations by the community.

Stars of David are etched above the medieval doorways next to the Moroccan Hand of Fatima — to ward off evil spirits. As rich lived alongside poor in the medina, everything of splendour was tucked away inside around interior courtyards so as not to embarrass less fortunate neighbours.

And everywhere I find that hauntingly rich blue, on doors and window frames, in between piles of handmade rugs and baskets, like chasing a memory through lanes of dreams. The medina’s alleyways are hemmed in by ancient walls but they thrum with history, as today’s inhabitants constantly ebb and flow on bikes, mopeds and donkeys.

It’s totally enchanting and feels a lot safer (even for a woman alone) than the pushy, tourist-y atmosphere of central Marrakech.

While there are no kosher restaurants inside the medina, there are plenty of vegetarian options as well as some smaller vegetarian-only cafes; for more style, Restaurant La Decouverte overlooks the Atlantic, with a mix of vegetarian and local fish dishes on the menu.

On my last day after a long leisurely breakfast amongst the courtyard palms, freshly made pancakes dotted with amlou — an argan oil, crushed nut paste like a local version of peanut butter — I stretched out on the hotel’s tempting rooftop day beds, a foot dangling langurously into the shimmering waters of the pool.

I can hear the waves breaking on the city’s wide sandy beach, I watch the kite surfers which dot the horizon like a flock of prehistoric birds, and dozed.

Argan oil may have amazing properties for my skin, but I discovered that a few days in Essaouira are also very good for the soul. It’s an ancient spot, just as argan is an ancient elixir and I for one am all for the power of the ancients.